United States Government Accountability Office GAO Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Oversight, Committee on Environment and Public Works, U.S. Senate June 2012 AIR POLLUTION EPA Needs Better Information on New Source Review Permits GAO-12-590 June 2012 AIR POLLUTION EPA Needs Better Information on New Source Review Permits Highlights of GAO-12-590, a report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Oversight, Committee on Environment and Public Works, U.S. Senate Why GAO Did This Study What GAO Found Electricity generating units that burn The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not maintain complete fossil fuels supply most of the nation’s information on New Source Review (NSR) permits issued to fossil fuel electricity electricity and are major sources of air generating units. State and local permitting agencies track the NSR permits they pollution. Under the Clean Air Act, issue, but EPA does not maintain complete or centralized information on permits, such units are subject to NSR, a despite a 2006 recommendation by the National Research Council that it do so. permitting process that applies to (1) EPA maintains several databases that compile data on draft and issued NSR units built after August 7, 1977, and (2) permits, but these sources are incomplete and thus cannot be used to identify all existing units that undertake a major of the NSR permits that have been issued nationwide. In addition, EPA has the modification. Owners of such units opportunity to review and comment on every draft NSR permit issued by state must obtain from the appropriate and local permitting agencies, but it does not compile data on whether the permitting agency a preconstruction permit that sets emission limits and permitting agencies address EPA’s comments in final permits. The absence of requires the use of certain pollution more complete information on NSR permitting makes it difficult to know which control technologies. EPA oversees units have obtained NSR permits or to assess how state and local permitting states’ implementation of NSR, agencies vary from EPA in their interpretations of NSR requirements. including reviewing and commenting on draft permits issued by state and Officials from EPA, state, and local agencies face challenges in ensuring that local permitting agencies. GAO was owners of fossil fuel electricity generating units comply with requirements to asked to examine (1) what information obtain NSR permits. Many of these challenges stem from two overarching EPA maintains on NSR permits issued issues. First, in some cases it is difficult to determine whether an NSR permit is to fossil fuel electricity generating units; required. NSR applicability depends on, among other factors, whether a change (2) challenges, if any, that EPA, state, to a unit qualifies as routine maintenance, repair, and replacement; and whether and local agencies face in ensuring the change results in a significant net increase in emissions. The rules governing compliance with requirements to obtain NSR are complex, however, and applicability is determined on a case-by-case NSR permits; and (3) what available basis. Second, it is often difficult to identify noncompliance—instances where unit data show about compliance with owners made a major modification without first obtaining an NSR permit—partly requirements to obtain NSR permits. because owners of generating units determine whether a permit is needed, and GAO reviewed relevant documentation in many cases their determinations are not reviewed by permitting agencies or and interviewed EPA, state, and local EPA. State permitting agencies generally issue NSR permits, but EPA typically officials, as well as representatives leads enforcement efforts, since identifying instances of noncompliance involves from industry, research, and environmental groups. extensive investigations that go beyond the routine inspections conducted by state and local permitting agencies. EPA identifies NSR noncompliance through What GAO Recommends a lengthy, resource-intensive process that involves reviewing large amounts of information on units’ past emissions and construction activities. GAO recommends that EPA, among other actions, consider ways to Available data on compliance, although incomplete, suggest that a substantial develop a centralized source of data number of generating units did not comply with requirements to obtain NSR on NSR permits issued to electricity generating units. EPA expressed its permits. Complete NSR compliance data do not exist for two main reasons: (1) commitment to filling gaps in its data EPA has not yet investigated all generating units for compliance, and (2) NSR systems, but disagreed with the compliance is determined at a point in time, and in some cases federal courts actions GAO recommended. GAO have disagreed with EPA about the need for an NSR permit. Nonetheless, EPA believes that its recommendations has investigated most coal-fired generating units at least once, and has alleged would enhance oversight of NSR noncompliance at more than half of the units it investigated. Specifically, of the permitting and enforcement. 831 units EPA investigated, 467 units were ultimately issued notices of violation, had complaints filed in court, or were included in settlement agreements. In total, EPA reached 22 settlements covering 263 units, which will require affected unit View GAO-12-590 or key components. For more information, contact David C. Trimble at owners to, among other things, install around $12.8 billion in emissions controls. (202) 512-3841 or TrimbleD@gao.gov, or These settlements will reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide by an estimated 1.8 Frank Rusco at (202) 512-3841 or million tons annually, and nitrogen oxides by an estimated 596,000 tons annually. RuscoF@gao.gov. United States Government Accountability Office Contents Letter 1 Background 6 EPA Does Not Maintain Complete Information on Issued NSR Permits or Track the Impact of Its Comments 7 Regulators Face Challenges in Ensuring Compliance with NSR Permitting Requirements 12 Available Data on NSR Compliance Are Not Complete but Suggest Substantial Noncompliance 19 Conclusions 21 Recommendations for Executive Action 23 Agency Comments and Our Evaluation 23 Appendix I Scope and Methodology 27 Appendix II Comparison of Available Databases of NSR Permits for Electricity Generating Units 29 Appendix III Concluded NSR Settlements 30 Appendix IV Comments from the Environmental Protection Agency 32 Appendix V GAO Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments 39 Tables Table 1: Comparison of Available NSR Permit Databases 29 Table 2: Concluded NSR Settlements Involving Electricity Generating Units 30 Figure Figure 1: New Source Review Permitting Process 8 Page i GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review Abbreviations DOJ Department of Justice EIA Energy Information Administration EPA Environmental Protection Agency NSR New Source Review OECA Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance SCR selective catalytic reduction This is a work of the U.S. government and is not subject to copyright protection in the United States. The published product may be reproduced and distributed in its entirety without further permission from GAO. However, because this work may contain copyrighted images or other material, permission from the copyright holder may be necessary if you wish to reproduce this material separately. Page ii GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review United States Government Accountability Office Washington, DC 20548 June 22, 2012 The Honorable Sheldon Whitehouse Chairman Subcommittee on Oversight Committee on Environment and Public Works United States Senate Dear Mr. Chairman: The efficient and reliable operation of the electricity industry is critical to the health of the U.S. economy. Residential consumers rely on electricity to power their households, and electricity is a key input for businesses that produce trillions of dollars in products and services. The United States depends on a variety of fuels to generate electricity, including fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and oil), renewable sources (such as wind, solar, and biomass), and nuclear power. Of these, fossil fuels have historically been the primary source of U.S. electricity because of their abundance, reliability, and relatively low cost. Yet in addition to providing about 70 percent of U.S. electricity, electricity generating units at fossil fuel power plants produce substantial amounts of harmful air emissions. 1 In particular, fossil fuel-fired electricity generating units are among the largest emitters of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which have been linked to respiratory illnesses and acid rain, as well as of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. Under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establishes national ambient air quality standards for six pollutants which states, primarily, are responsible for attaining. 2 States attain these standards, in part, by regulating emissions of these pollutants from certain stationary sources, such as electricity generating units. Numerous Clean Air Act requirements apply to electricity generating units, including New 1 Fossil fuel units are responsible for nearly all emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides from the electricity generating sector. 2 EPA has set national ambient air quality standards for six pollutants, termed “criteria” pollutants: carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen oxides, ozone, particulate matter, and sulfur oxides. Page 1 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review Source Review (NSR), a permitting process established in 1977. 3 Under NSR, owners of generating units must obtain a preconstruction permit that establishes emission limits and requires the use of certain emissions control technologies. 4 NSR applies to (1) generating units built after August 7, 1977, and (2) existing generating units—regardless of the date built—that seek to undertake a “major modification,” a physical or operational change that would result in a significant net increase in emissions of a regulated pollutant. 5 Units built before August 7, 1977, are not required to undergo NSR unless they undertake a major modification. However, EPA’s regulatory definition of major modification excludes certain activities; generating units can undertake these activities without obtaining NSR permits or installing any additional controls. For example, activities that qualify as “routine maintenance, repair, and replacement” are not considered major modifications and therefore do not trigger NSR. Congress allowed units that existed as of August 7, 1977 to defer installation of emissions controls until they made a major modification in the expectation that, over time, all units would either install such controls or shut down, thereby lowering overall emissions. As we reported in April 2012, however, many older units—those that began operating in or before 3 This report focuses solely on fossil fuel electricity generating units and major New Source Review at those units, although NSR also applies to certain other major stationary sources of air pollution, such as other industrial facilities. NSR also applies to minor modifications at major stationary sources, as well as to new and modified minor sources (known as minor NSR). 4 In areas that meet EPA’s national ambient air quality standards—known as attainment areas—the NSR permitting process includes a review for “prevention of significant deterioration” to ensure that the emissions will not exceed maximum allowable increases for three criteria pollutants: nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter. In areas that do not meet the standards—known as nonattainment areas—the permitting process is known as “nonattainment NSR.” Throughout this report, the term NSR includes both types of review. 5 What constitutes a significant net increase in emissions depends on whether the generating unit is located in an attainment or nonattainment area and the type of regulated pollutant being emitted. For example, in all areas, a 100-ton-per-year increase is significant for carbon monoxide, while a 40-ton-per-year increase is significant for nitrogen oxides or sulfur dioxide. In attainment areas, increases of noncriteria regulated pollutants can also be significant. Page 2 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review 1978—continue to produce electricity. 6 According to our analysis of EPA data, 1,485 older units (43 percent of fossil fuel units) were still in operation in 2010. 7 A substantial number of these older units did not have emissions controls; for example, 1,201 units (74 percent of older units) did not have controls for sulfur dioxide. In addition, 564 units (38 percent of older units) did not have any controls for nitrogen oxides, and 1,277 units (86 percent of older units) had not installed selective catalytic reduction (SCR) equipment, the type of control most effective at reducing nitrogen oxides. The reduction in emissions from the use of emissions controls can be substantial: SCR equipment, for example, can reduce nitrogen oxides emissions by 70 to 95 percent. Emissions controls can also be expensive; for example, installing SCR equipment in a typical coal-fired generating unit could cost from $108 million to $129 million. Throughout its history, NSR has been characterized by complexity and controversy, involving disputes between EPA and industry about, among other issues, whether certain changes to generating units qualified for exclusion as routine maintenance, repair, and replacement. In December 2002, EPA finalized revisions to NSR regulations, including exemptions for certain pollution control projects from NSR. These revisions were intended to maximize operating flexibility, improve environmental quality, and promote administrative efficiency, among other aims. In addition, in October 2003, EPA finalized a rule that categorically excluded certain activities from NSR by defining them as “routine maintenance, repair, and replacement.” This rule was intended to provide more certainty to generating units and permitting authorities. These NSR reforms, as the two rulemakings were known, provoked considerable controversy. Some states and industry groups agreed with EPA’s position, while a number of public health and environmental groups, as well as a group of states primarily from the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, filed lawsuits challenging the legality of the two rules. Since their issuance, two of the five 6 GAO, Air Emissions and Electricity Generation at U.S. Power Plants, GAO-12-545R (Washington, D.C.: Apr. 18, 2012). Analysis is limited to generating units that (1) listed a fossil fuel as a primary fuel; (2) generated electricity in 2010; and (3) had a net summer capacity greater than 25 megawatts, making them subject to EPA’s emissions monitoring and reporting requirements. 7 These 1,485 older units produced 45 percent of the electricity from fossil fuel units in 2010. The remainder was produced by 1,958 newer units (those that began operating after 1978). Page 3 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review provisions in the 2002 rule, as well as the 2003 rule, were struck down in court. 8 As with many environmental laws, responsibility for implementing NSR, including issuing NSR permits, generally rests with state and local agencies, with oversight by EPA’s 10 regional offices and EPA headquarters. Owners or operators of generating units wishing to make major modifications must prepare and submit a permit application to the appropriate state or local permitting agency before construction. The state or local permitting agency determines if the application is complete; develops a draft permit, if one is necessary; notifies EPA and the public of the application; and solicits comments on the draft permit. The permitting agency then issues a final permit, if merited, with responses to comments it received. The permitting agency is to provide EPA with a copy of every permit application, draft permit, and final permit. EPA administers its NSR oversight and enforcement responsibilities through its headquarters Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, as well as its 10 regional offices. This office monitors compliance, identifies national enforcement concerns and priorities, and provides overall direction on enforcement policies; the office also occasionally takes enforcement action in conjunction with the Department of Justice (DOJ), the agency responsible for handling enforcement cases in federal court. In turn, EPA’s regional offices carry out much of EPA’s NSR enforcement responsibilities, oversee states’ enforcement programs, and implement NSR in certain areas, such as Indian country. 9 Since 1999, EPA has made enforcing NSR among coal-fired electricity generating units a national enforcement priority and has reached several settlements with owners of such units, which have resulted in the installation of emissions controls, unit retirements, agreements to fund environmentally beneficial projects, and tens of millions of dollars in civil penalties. 8 Other revisions to NSR regulations were proposed in 2006 and 2007 but were never finalized, or, if finalized, EPA has stayed their effective date, is considering whether changes to the regulation are necessary, or both. Similarly, a revision finalized in December 2008 has been stayed. 9 “Indian country” includes all land within the limits of an Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States government, all dependent Indian communities within the borders of the United States, and all Indian allotments, the Indian titles to which have not been extinguished. Page 4 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review This report responds in part to your request for information on the implementation and enforcement of NSR for fossil fuel electricity generating units. Specifically, our objectives were to examine (1) what information EPA maintains on NSR permits issued to fossil fuel electricity generating units; (2) challenges, if any, that EPA, state, and local agencies face in ensuring compliance with requirements to obtain NSR permits; and (3) what available data show about compliance with requirements to obtain NSR permits. To respond to our objectives, we gathered information from EPA and from selected state and local officials involved in implementing NSR. We selected a nonprobability sample of nine states on the basis of (1) the number of older electricity generating units in the state; (2) the quantity of electricity generated by such units in those states; (3) the volume of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide emitted by units in those states; and (4) the region in which the generating unit was located. The nine states we selected were: Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. We gathered information from EPA and these selected states on the status of their NSR permitting programs and efforts to collect and maintain relevant data. In addition, we spoke with officials from these states, as well as officials at the four EPA regional offices that oversee these states and EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. In three of the states, some localities are responsible for NSR permitting; we spoke with officials at two of those localities. To assess compliance with NSR, we reviewed relevant documents from EPA, other government agencies, academic and research institutions, environmental organizations, and industry groups. We also interviewed knowledgeable enforcement and compliance officials from EPA headquarters and the four regional offices, as well as officials in selected states and localities, to collect information on EPA’s efforts to enforce NSR and track compliance among generating units. In addition, we spoke with stakeholders from academic and research institutions, environmental organizations, and industry groups on these topics. Appendix I provides additional information about our scope and methodology. We conducted this performance audit from April 2011 to June 2012, in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. Page 5 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review Subject to EPA’s oversight, state and local permitting agencies generally Background administer NSR and operate under one of two arrangements. Under the first arrangement, state and local agencies receive “delegated authority” from EPA under which they implement EPA’s NSR regulations. Under the second arrangement, states and localities are also responsible for administering NSR, but instead of implementing EPA’s NSR regulations, state and local agencies develop plans, known as state implementation plans, that regulate the construction and modification of stationary sources. These plans provide assurances that the states and localities will have adequate personnel, funding, and authority under state law to carry out the plan, among other provisions. State implementation plans also must include NSR regulations that are at least as stringent as EPA’s NSR regulations, although states and local agencies are authorized to include more stringent or additional requirements. 10 States and localities must submit these plans, as well as any revisions to them, to EPA for approval. Once EPA approves the plans, they become federally enforceable requirements. Although this report focuses on NSR, the Clean Air Act and its implementing regulations subject electricity generating units to additional emissions control requirements. For example, the Acid Rain Program, created by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, established a cap on the amount of sulfur dioxide that may be emitted by electricity generating units nationwide and authorizes those generating units to trade emissions allowances for sulfur dioxide. These facilities must also continuously monitor their emissions and report them to EPA. Furthermore, EPA has recently finalized or proposed several other regulations that will affect many fossil fuel generating units. These regulations include the (1) Mandatory Reporting of Greenhouse Gas rule finalized in 2009, which established reporting requirements for greenhouse gas emissions above certain thresholds; (2) Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, finalized in 2011, which limits sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emissions from a number of states that contribute significantly to nonattainment or interference with maintenance of certain national ambient air quality standards in downwind states; (3) National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants from Coal- and Oil-Fired Electric Utility Steam Generating Units, also known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which 10 Some states, however, have laws preventing agencies from issuing more stringent regulations. Page 6 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review establish emissions limitations on mercury and other pollutants and was finalized on February 15, 2012; and (4) Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions for New Stationary Sources for Electric Utility Generating Units, proposed in April 2012, which establishes new source performance standards for emissions of carbon dioxide for certain new fossil fuel electricity generating units. 11 EPA does not maintain complete information on NSR permits issued to EPA Does Not fossil fuel electricity generating units. State and local permitting agencies Maintain Complete track the NSR permits they issue, but EPA does not maintain data on these permits in a complete and centralized source of information, which Information on Issued limits the agency’s ability to assess the impact of NSR. In addition, EPA NSR Permits or Track has the opportunity to review and comment on every draft NSR permit the Impact of Its issued by state and local permitting agencies, but the agency does not compile data on which permitting authorities address EPA’s comments. Comments The absence of this information makes it difficult for EPA to measure the impact of its comments and may impede its ability to assess how state and local permitting agencies may differ from EPA in their interpretation of NSR requirements. EPA Does Not Maintain EPA does not maintain complete information on NSR permits issued for Complete Data on NSR construction of new fossil fuel electricity generating units or for major Permits modifications to existing units. State and local permitting agencies, which issue NSR permits in most parts of the country, track the NSR permits they issue. (Figure 1 describes the roles of state and local permitting agencies and EPA in issuing NSR permits.) State and local agencies vary widely in the types of data they collect on NSR permits and the systems they use to compile the data. Some states maintain detailed information on NSR permits in electronic form available on publicly accessible websites. For instance, in seven of the nine states where we conducted interviews, state officials maintain information online that can be used to identify the electricity generating units that have received NSR permits, as 11 The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants from Coal- and Oil-Fired Electric Utility Steam Generating Units are currently being challenged in court. A federal appeals court has stayed the effective date of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule while it hears the case. GAO is currently undertaking a study on the effects of these two rules on reliability. The study is expected to be issued in 2012. Page 7 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review well as the requirements of the permits. 12 These data, however, are maintained in different formats across these states and cannot be readily compiled into a complete source of information on NSR permitting for the electricity generating sector. Figure 1: New Source Review Permitting Process In addition to the data collected by state and local permitting agencies, EPA maintains several sources of data on NSR permitting for electricity generating units, but none of these sources are complete. Of the four EPA regional offices we assessed, three offices consolidated NSR permitting data for the states and localities under their oversight. 13 For example, one EPA regional office maintains a spreadsheet to track NSR permits issued over time. The spreadsheet contains information on (1) the type of source applying for the permit, (2) the project under consideration, (3) when a final permit is issued, and (4) what emissions control technologies are required. However, the information maintained by the EPA regional offices is in different formats and is not compiled into a complete, centralized repository of information on NSR permits issued nationwide. In 2006, the National Research Council recommended that EPA, in conjunction with states and localities, systematically collect data on the full range of NSR permits issued nationwide to stationary sources of air 12 Our review was limited to the NSR permits issued to electricity generating units; state and local permitting agencies may also maintain information on NSR permits issued to other stationary sources. 13 Regional offices also maintain information on the NSR permits issued by their office, such as to generating units in Indian Country, although officials said that regional offices rarely issue such permits. Page 8 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review pollution, including electricity generating units. 14 In its report the council noted that such information could be useful to stakeholders and decision makers for assessing the broader impacts of NSR regulations, or potential changes to the regulations, on emissions, public health, and energy efficiency. Asked how EPA had responded to this recommendation, officials in EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation said it had largely been satisfied by an agency database that tracks the emissions control technologies that have been required by issued NSR permits. 15 However, the database is incomplete; EPA officials said it contains information on approximately 50 percent of issued NSR permits and therefore cannot be used, as recommended by the council, to identify all NSR permits that have been issued nationwide. EPA officials suggested that the database was not complete because some state and local permitting agencies do not enter their information in a timely manner, and others do not report the information at all. In addition, EPA officials noted that the Clean Air Act requires only that states enter permit information for sources in nonattainment areas. 16 EPA also has a centrally maintained database on NSR permits issued nationwide for sources of greenhouse gases. EPA officials told us this 14 National Research Council, New Source Review for Stationary Sources of Air Pollution (Washington, D.C.:2006). In its report, the Council found that no centralized source existed for information on NSR permits issued nationwide. It estimated—using data provided to EPA by state and local permitting authorities that were preliminary, unpublished, and not subjected to review—that from 1997 to 1999 there had been several NSR permits issued for major modifications to existing sources in the combined electricity, gas, and sanitary services sector: 38 for carbon monoxide, 30 for particulate matter, 46 for nitrogen oxides, and zero for sulfur dioxide. 15 The RACT/BACT/LAER Clearinghouse is a database maintained by EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, which contains information provided by state and local permitting agencies on air pollution control technologies, including technologies required in source-specific permits. The database contains information on over 5,000 air pollution control permit determinations submitted by permitting agencies for several U.S. territories and all 50 states. 16 See 42 U.S.C. § 7503(d). According to EPA officials, in many cases, EPA regional offices also have planning agreements with states stipulating that the state must enter data from all NSR permits into the database. Some regional offices specify a certain time frame by which states must enter the data. These officials said that, as a general matter, the planning agreements are tied to grant funding received by states, and EPA could conceivably withhold funding if a state fails to meet a condition of the agreement. However, with declining budgets and resources at state government levels, officials said that entering data is not always a priority for states, or they may choose to defer entering data until they believe they have a permit that is noteworthy. Page 9 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review database would capture most NSR permitting activity for electricity generating units because such units are major sources of greenhouse gases, in addition to other pollutants. But this database too is incomplete: it has been used only since 2011 and does not contain information on whether the NSR permits include requirements for pollutants other than greenhouse gases. EPA officials mentioned other means of tracking data on NSR permits, but none of these sources can definitively identify the units that have received NSR permits nationwide (see app. II for more information on sources of data on NSR permits). 17 Because EPA does not maintain comprehensive information on the NSR permits issued to fossil fuel electricity generating units across the nation, the agency does not have complete data on which units have obtained permits, limiting its ability to assess the scope and impact of NSR. Without such data, EPA cannot fully assess what controls have been required or estimate what emissions from generating units may have been averted as a result of NSR requirements. In addition, the absence of information on NSR permits hinders EPA’s ability to efficiently target noncompliance. To identify potential targets for NSR enforcement actions—units that may have made a physical or operational change that resulted in a significant net emissions increase without obtaining a permit—EPA officials we interviewed said they have relied in part on continuous emissions monitoring data required under Title IV of the Clean Air Act. For example, an unusual emissions decrease followed by a sharp increase could signal a temporary plant shutdown to install new equipment. In instances where noncompliance has been suspected, EPA officials we spoke with said they have sometimes consulted relevant state and local permitting authorities to ascertain whether a suspected unit previously received an NSR permit. In other cases, EPA officials told us they have obtained copies of NSR permits by requiring unit owners to provide them through information requests, along with documentation on previously completed work at a suspected unit— making a centralized source of information on NSR permits unnecessary. Nevertheless, without a centralized source of information on NSR permits, EPA enforcement officials cannot readily identify whether a generating unit has obtained an NSR permit, and under what terms, 17 For example, EPA maintains a database aimed at tracking its reviews of draft state- issued permits; the database does not, however, contain information on final permits or their terms. Page 10 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review unless they rely on unit owners or the efforts of state and local permitting agencies to provide this information. EPA Does Not Track EPA does not track whether state and local permitting agencies Incorporation of Its incorporate the agency’s comments into final NSR permits for fossil fuel Comments into Draft electricity generating units. State and local permitting agencies have the authority to make final permitting decisions, but as part of its oversight Permits responsibilities, EPA has the opportunity to review and comment on every draft NSR permit submitted by state and local permitting agencies. 18 EPA officials said that, when the agency elects to make comments, their reviews often focus on whether and how the permitting authorities conduct the required analyses—for example, whether an appropriate analysis was used to support a proposed emissions control as the best available control technology. The agency’s comments are first prepared by regional offices and then reviewed by headquarters to ensure consistency with comments previously issued by the agency. According to EPA officials, EPA’s headquarters office maintains a database to track the agency’s work and ensure that it delivers comments during the 30-day public comment period. This database includes basic information on the draft permits, but EPA does not use it to track the proposed terms of the permits, the substance of the agency’s own comments, whether the draft permits are finalized, or the extent to which state and local agencies incorporated EPA’s comments into final permits. Officials we interviewed in several EPA regional offices said they note the responses of state and local permitting agencies to EPA’s comments, but all said that they do not regularly report this information to EPA headquarters. EPA officials also told us that regional officials notify headquarters officials, including members of a working group on the utility industry, when significant areas of concern arise on a final NSR permit for a generating unit. They noted that this information is neither reported systematically nor compiled in a centralized manner, adding that quantifying the impact of all of its comments would be subjective and time-consuming. However, without compiling any information on whether state and local permitting agencies have incorporated its comments into final NSR permits, EPA is limited in its ability to assess the impact of 18 EPA regulations require state and local permitting agencies to give the public at least 30 days to comment on draft NSR permits. Page 11 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review these comments on state and local permitting decisions across the nation. For example, EPA cannot assess the extent to which NSR emissions control requirements imposed by state and local permitting agencies may differ from those suggested by EPA in its comments. 19 In addition to a lack of comprehensive permitting data, EPA and state and Regulators Face local agencies face other challenges in ensuring that owners of fossil fuel Challenges in electricity generating units comply with requirements to obtain NSR permits. Many of the challenges stem from two overarching issues: Ensuring Compliance (1) determining whether an NSR permit is required and (2) identifying with NSR Permitting instances where unit owners should have obtained NSR permits but did Requirements not. As a result, EPA’s enforcement efforts involve long, resource- intensive investigations. Determining When NSR A major challenge to EPA, states, and local agencies in ensuring NSR Applies Can Be Difficult compliance is that it can be difficult for unit owners and regulators to know whether an NSR permit is needed, because NSR’s rules governing applicability are complex and because NSR applicability is determined on a case-by-case basis. EPA and state officials we spoke with said that NSR as it applies to new units is fairly straightforward, because newly constructed units generally must obtain NSR permits before starting operation. In contrast, determining what constitutes a major modification of an existing unit, and, thus, what requires an NSR permit, is more complex. Under NSR regulations, owners are to apply for an NSR permit before making any physical or operational change that would result in a significant net increase of emissions. These changes, such as adding new equipment, must be evaluated in the specific context of the unit and its intended use. State officials and industry representatives we interviewed said it can be difficult to determine whether these activities trigger NSR because the two steps for determining applicability—first, whether the unit is making a physical or operational change and, second, whether this change would result in a significant net increase of emissions—are not categorically defined and have changed over time. 19 In states that have adopted their own NSR regulations, these NSR rules may differ from EPA’s, although they must be no less stringent than EPA’s regulations. Page 12 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review The first step for determining NSR applicability can be complicated because the definition of “physical or operational change” excludes activities that are considered routine maintenance, repair, and replacement. NSR regulations, first finalized in 1978, contained no description or definition of the “routine maintenance” exclusion, instead relying on a case-by-case approach that involves weighing several factors, including the nature, extent, purpose, frequency, and cost of proposed activities. Federal courts, however, have issued inconsistent decisions on whether the factors should be analyzed with respect to industry practice or a particular unit’s history. In 2003, in part because of concerns about the case-by-case approach, EPA finalized a rule that categorically excluded certain activities from NSR by defining them as “routine maintenance, repair, and replacement” to provide more certainty to generating units and permitting agencies. Specifically, the rule categorically deemed certain replacement activities to be routine maintenance, repair, and replacement if certain conditions were met, such as replacement activities’ costs not exceeding a specified threshold. In 2006, however, a federal appeals court struck down this rule because it was contrary to the plain language of the Clean Air Act. As a result, a case-by-case approach is still used to determine which activities qualify for the exclusion. Several state officials and industry representatives we interviewed said that the case-by-case approach makes it difficult to know when NSR applies. A number of industry representatives also said that uncertainty around NSR applicability can deter owners from making improvements to units that would improve efficiency. One senior EPA enforcement official we interviewed, however, noted that NSR regulations are written broadly to cover many disparate industries and said it would not be possible for EPA to develop detailed regulations tailored to each industry. One state official we spoke with also said that attempts to more precisely specify what activities are considered routine maintenance might not be worthwhile, since EPA’s previous efforts to do so were struck down in court. The second step in determining NSR applicability—assessing whether a change results in a significant net increase in emissions—presents additional complications. Like the routine maintenance exclusion, regulations governing what constitutes an increase in emissions have been subject to litigation, leading to changes in the process used to measure emissions increases over time. For example, in 1992, in response to a court decision, EPA finalized a regulation changing how future emissions from generating units are to be calculated. Rather than calculating future emissions based on a unit’s potential to emit, under the Page 13 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review revised regulation, future emissions are calculated based, in part, on the maximum emissions that can be generated while operating the unit as it is intended to be operated and as it is normally operated. Some state officials and industry representatives we interviewed said that calculating emissions increases can be challenging because the regulations are complex, and EPA’s interpretation has changed over time. NSR’s complexity can be particularly difficult for owners of smaller generating units who may lack the legal and technical expertise to properly comply with NSR, according to an EPA official and industry representative we interviewed. EPA officials acknowledged that the process is not always simple, but they also noted that it is much easier for companies to make these calculations than for permitting agencies to verify them, since permitting agencies are less familiar with—and have less access to— information about a generating unit, its activities, and its data systems, than the companies. According to several state officials and industry representatives we interviewed, assessing whether a change results in a significant net increase in emissions can also be complicated because EPA regulations authorize certain emissions increases to be excluded from this assessment—specifically, those emissions increases that are attributable to growth in demand. 20 Several state officials we interviewed said that some owners have had difficulty distinguishing between emissions increases due to projected growth in demand and emissions increases resulting from the change to the unit, a process made more difficult because EPA has not offered clarification or guidance regarding this exclusion. One senior EPA enforcement official disagreed with this assessment, noting that utilities commonly employ models that help project demand as a way to guide their operations and investment decisions. According to this official, EPA’s approach is based on methods already widely employed throughout the electricity sector. EPA and state agency officials, who are responsible for verifying owners’ calculations when they apply for a permit or seek guidance on NSR applicability, said that verifications are further complicated by other NSR provisions that exclude certain activities from NSR. For example, a 20 The portion of the generating unit’s emissions post-project that could have been accommodated by the generating unit at a certain time before the proposed change, and that are also unrelated to the project, including any increased utilization due to demand growth, can be excluded from the calculation of emissions increases. Page 14 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review change that significantly increases a generating unit’s emissions will not trigger NSR if it does not cause a net increase in emissions. Specifically, an NSR permit is not required if the increase in emissions resulting from a change is offset by certain contemporaneous emissions reductions, a process called “netting.” EPA has defined “contemporaneous” as within 5 years before construction on the change commences, although states can define the term differently. Thus, an owner could compensate for an emissions increase in a given year by subtracting emissions decreases that were made in the previous 5 years, although any other emissions increases during that 5-year period must also have been included in the calculation. Several state agency officials we spoke with said that unit owners often pursue this option so they do not have to obtain an NSR permit and install costly emissions controls. Several EPA and state officials we interviewed also said, however, that it can be difficult to verify that calculations are valid, in part because they must rely on information provided by the unit owners. Some of these officials said it can be difficult to determine what types of emissions reductions and increases may be aggregated together under the netting option. 21 One EPA regional office official said that, overall, options such as netting complicate and lengthen the permitting process because they require unit owners to submit additional documentation that the regulator must in turn review. To aid owners and regulators in determining when NSR should apply, EPA and state officials identified several sources of available guidance, including the following: • Consultations with state and local agencies. Before seeking a permit, owners of units can request assistance from state and local permitting agencies in determining whether NSR applies. Some state agency officials said that unit owners in their state regularly seek guidance, particularly on how to qualify for one of NSR’s exclusions. However, other EPA and state officials we spoke with said that such requests are uncommon; many unit owners may hesitate to contact a regulatory agency because regulators may have a different interpretation of NSR that could require them to install costly emissions controls. 21 In September 2006, EPA proposed a rule clarifying how emissions decreases from a project may be included in the calculation to determine if a significant emissions increase will result. EPA did not finalize the rule. Page 15 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review • EPA’s 1990 draft NSR workshop manual. Several state agency officials we spoke with said they rely on a draft EPA manual from 1990 issued as guidance for implementing the federal NSR permitting process, although the manual was never finalized and has not been updated. • Regionally maintained databases. Through one of its regional offices, EPA maintains an online database containing more than 600 EPA- issued policy and guidance documents. Several EPA and state officials we interviewed said that the database was helpful in providing current information on how to apply NSR, although one state official said that these determinations are not always consistent. • Court decisions. Several EPA and state permitting officials we interviewed said they rely primarily on court rulings for guidance on interpreting NSR regulations to ensure that their determinations are up-to-date. EPA officials said that the agency’s ability to generate comprehensive, nationwide guidance is limited because of the case-by-case nature of NSR, ongoing litigation, and the variation in NSR requirements across states. For example, some states and localities have adopted NSR requirements that are more stringent than the federal regulations. Furthermore, some states’ regulations differ because they have not revised their state implementation plans to incorporate the 2002 NSR reforms or had those revisions approved by EPA. Identifying NSR The second major challenge EPA and state and local agencies face in Noncompliance Requires ensuring compliance with NSR is that it is often difficult for regulators to Long Investigations identify noncompliance—that is, instances where owners did not obtain NSR permits before making major modifications to their generating units. According to several EPA officials we interviewed, identifying noncompliance can be challenging because unit owners—not regulatory agencies—have responsibility for determining whether they need an NSR permit. Most owners do not ultimately obtain NSR permits before making changes to their units, according to EPA officials we interviewed, because the owners determine that the changes fall under one of NSR’s exclusions, such as routine maintenance, or because they offset emissions increases through netting. These unit owners are generally not required to notify EPA or state or local permitting agencies when they use these exclusions. Therefore, EPA would not review the owners’ determinations unless (1) the owner proactively sought a permit and the Page 16 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review state or local permitting agency determined that an NSR permit was required or (2) EPA initiated an investigation. In instances where a unit did not apply for and receive a permit as required, it can take EPA several years to identify the noncompliance and take corrective action. Moreover, under an EPA rule finalized in 2007, known as the “reasonable possibility recordkeeping” rule, a unit owner who determines that a change will not trigger NSR is not required to keep records of the change and its resulting emissions unless the owner believes there is a reasonable possibility that the change could result in a significant emissions increase, and other conditions are met. 22 According to one state official we interviewed, this rule may complicate efforts to identify noncompliance because EPA and state regulators generally have to retroactively determine whether an NSR permit should have been obtained for past activities, and without the benefit of company records, such a determination is difficult. According to EPA and state officials we interviewed, state and local permitting agencies are generally not well positioned to identify noncompliance. State and local permitting agencies routinely inspect units, but officials told us these inspections focus on compliance with the terms of existing operating permits, not on whether an owner failed to obtain a permit. Several EPA and state officials told us that, given the complexity of most units, routine compliance inspections are not well suited to detect NSR violations, in part because it is difficult to distinguish work that might be considered a major modification from other work that is routine. According to one EPA official, to identify noncompliance with NSR, agency investigators need to identify what changes have already occurred; gather information on the nature of these changes; and determine whether NSR should have applied at the time the changes occurred, considering all possible exclusions and other factors. EPA officials we spoke with said that this process requires investigators to analyze information on historic emissions and a large volume of records on work conducted over the course of a unit’s life. According to these and other EPA officials, such extensive review would not be possible during routine compliance inspections. Several state and EPA officials we spoke with also said that, given the complexity and case-by-case nature of NSR, state and local agencies generally do not have the resources—and in some cases expertise—to detect noncompliance. As result, several state 22 This 2007 final rule was a clarification of a 2002 NSR reform regulation that the D.C. Circuit Court remanded to EPA in 2005. EPA is currently considering whether changes to the regulation are necessary and a litigating a case about the rule. Page 17 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review officials we spoke with said they rely on EPA to identify instances of noncompliance with NSR. EPA has therefore taken a lead role in enforcing NSR, beginning in the mid-1990s and continuing to the present. In 1996, EPA began targeting older, coal-fired generating units for compliance assessments and, on the basis of its investigations, alleged that several of the largest coal-fired electricity generating units in the country had violated NSR provisions by making major modifications without obtaining an NSR permit. In 1999 and early 2000, after receiving a number of cases from EPA, DOJ filed seven enforcement actions in U.S. federal courts in what is known as EPA’s Coal-Fired Power Plant Enforcement Initiative. For their part, owners of units targeted by the NSR enforcement initiative contended that, among other things, their projects should have qualified for the routine maintenance exclusion. Nonetheless, almost all of these cases ultimately resulted in settlements mandating the installation of emissions controls and civil penalties. Since then, EPA and DOJ have continued this enforcement initiative and secured additional settlements for alleged noncompliance with NSR. According to EPA, steps to develop an NSR enforcement case include: 1. Section 114 requests. Under Section 114 of the Clean Air Act, EPA may obtain information from owners of generating units to determine whether violations have occurred. Such information includes detailed cost information on capital construction projects suspected to be NSR violations. According to EPA officials, collecting and reviewing such information can take several months to over a year. 2. Settlement negotiations. After reviewing generating units’ records, EPA determines whether NSR violations have occurred. If EPA determines that the unit is not in compliance, it will notify owners of generating units and encourage the owner to install emissions controls. EPA initially tries to resolve noncompliance through a settlement. 3. Referral. If settlement negotiations are unsuccessful, EPA will determine whether enough evidence exists to refer the case to DOJ for potential litigation. DOJ then reviews the accumulated evidence and determines whether there is merit to file suit against the company. Before filing the case in court, DOJ generally discusses the matter with the owner in a further attempt to settle. Page 18 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review According to EPA and DOJ officials, EPA’s investigations for NSR compliance, and subsequent enforcement actions, take a long time to conclude and involve substantial EPA resources. In instances where EPA’s investigations have uncovered suspected violations, it can take years to litigate a case or bring it to conclusion through a settlement. Specifically, the 22 settlements resulting from EPA’s enforcement initiative took, on average, 7 years to conclude. According to several industry representatives we interviewed, these efforts have also placed a large burden on owners and operators of generating units, given the amount of information required on past activities at the unit. Available data, while not complete, suggest that a substantial number of Available Data on generating units have not complied with requirements to obtain NSR NSR Compliance Are permits. Complete data on NSR compliance do not exist for two primary reasons. First, EPA has not yet investigated all electricity generating units Not Complete but for compliance with requirements to obtain NSR permits. Second, NSR Suggest Substantial compliance is determined at a point in time, and EPA’s interpretation of Noncompliance compliance has, in some cases, differed from that of federal courts. Nonetheless, EPA has investigated a majority of coal-fired generating units, and data from these investigations suggest that a substantial number of generating units have not complied. Complete Data on Unit From our review of relevant documentation and EPA-provided data, we Compliance with NSR Are identified two primary reasons why complete data on NSR compliance Not Available are not available. First, EPA has not yet investigated all generating units for NSR compliance, and second, available data do not provide a complete picture of compliance. EPA has investigated most—but not all—coal-fired generating units for compliance with NSR at least once. According to our review of EPA- provided documents and data, EPA has investigated 831 generating units at least once since it began its Coal-Fired Power Plant Enforcement Initiative. These 831 units represent about 81 percent of all coal-fired units that generated electricity in 2010 and about 24 percent of all fossil fuel-fired units (those using coal, natural gas, or oil) that produced Page 19 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review electricity in 2010. 23 Most natural gas units—as well as some smaller coal-fired units—have not been investigated by EPA. According to EPA officials we interviewed, the agency has focused most of its NSR compliance efforts on large, coal-fired units because they produce dramatically higher levels of harmful air emissions. Data on units investigated by EPA are not conclusive because compliance is determined at a point in time; therefore, subsequent changes to the unit could affect its future compliance with NSR. NSR is required each time an existing generating unit undertakes a major modification. Thus, an owner of electricity generating unit that has obtained an NSR permit in the past—or was subject to an EPA investigation—is not exempt from the requirement to obtain an NSR permit for any future major modifications. 24 Moreover, allegations of noncompliance stemming from EPA’s investigations do not necessarily mean that a violation has occurred, because in some cases federal courts have ultimately disagreed with EPA about the need for an NSR permit. Given these issues, it is difficult to provide a comprehensive assessment of NSR compliance at any given time. EPA Has Found These limitations notwithstanding, data on generating units investigated Noncompliance at a by EPA shed some light on overall compliance with NSR among Majority of Units It Has electricity generating units. Among the 831 generating units it has investigated through its Coal-Fired Power Plant Enforcement Initiative, Investigated EPA has alleged NSR noncompliance at a substantial number. Specifically, EPA has alleged noncompliance—documented through notices of violation, complaints filed in court, or settlements—at 467 generating units, around 56 percent of the units it has investigated. 25 These 467 units investigated by EPA represent approximately 45 percent 23 Analysis is based on a universe of 3,443 electricity generating units in the U.S. that (1) listed a fossil fuel as a primary fuel, (2) had a net summer capacity greater than 25 megawatts, and (3) produced electricity in 2010. 24 Although units must undergo NSR review for major modifications, some of the settlement agreements EPA has reached with electricity generating units include a provision precluding EPA, in certain circumstances, from suing the owner for making a major modification and not undergoing NSR. 25 In the settlements, companies generally denied the alleged violations and maintained their compliance with the Clean Air Act but agreed to settle to avoid the costs and uncertainties of litigation and improve the environment. Page 20 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review of coal-fired units that produced electricity in 2010, and about 14 percent of all fossil fuel-fired units that produced electricity in 2010. 26 According to EPA, the Coal-Fired Power Plant Enforcement Initiative is perhaps the most comprehensive and coordinated enforcement effort under the Clean Air Act to date. The initiative has led to 22 settlements covering a total of 263 units, or approximately 32 percent of the units EPA has investigated. According to our analysis of EPA data, the settlements will require affected unit owners to install and operate emissions controls costing an estimated $12.8 billion in total and levy civil penalties totaling around $80 million. Some companies are also required to fund environmentally beneficial projects, such as restoring watersheds and forests in national parks. These settlements are projected to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by more than 1.8 million tons annually and nitrogen oxides emissions by about 596,000 tons annually. 27 In some cases, EPA reached companywide settlements in which companies agreed to put emissions controls on units constituting most of their production capacity. Two of the largest settlements—with American Electric Power and the Tennessee Valley Authority—represent 105 units, around 40 percent of the total, and about $8.6 billion in control costs, or around two-thirds of the total. A senior Department of Justice official we interviewed said that, in addition to the 22 concluded settlements, 7 additional NSR cases are in various stages of litigation. See appendix III for more details on EPA’s concluded NSR settlements. Ensuring compliance with NSR presents significant challenges for EPA, Conclusions and state and local permitting agencies. Unit owners—not regulators— are responsible for determining when an NSR permit is needed, and, because of NSR’s complex requirements, these determinations are not always straightforward. The complexity and case-by-case nature of NSR requirements also mean that NSR violations are difficult to detect, once they occur. State and local agencies generally do not have the resources to identify NSR violations and therefore rely on EPA to enforce NSR. Although available data on NSR compliance are not conclusive, the 26 Analysis is based on a universe of 3,443 electricity generating units that (1) listed a fossil fuel as a primary fuel, (2) had a net summer capacity greater than 25 megawatts, and (3) produced electricity in 2010. 27 These reductions are to be phased in over an agreed-upon time frame, often 10 years. Page 21 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review substantial number of generating units EPA investigations have allegedly found to be noncompliant suggests that many generating units have not obtained NSR permits as required. Addressing NSR’s complexity and improving compliance could reduce the need for long and resource- intensive enforcement actions and more effectively protect air quality by averting emissions before they occur. Yet EPA’s ability to simplify NSR or develop comprehensive, nationwide guidance is limited for several reasons, including the case-by-case nature of NSR applicability, ongoing litigation, and the variation in NSR requirements across states. Nonetheless, EPA has an opportunity to improve its efforts by collecting more comprehensive NSR permitting data. Several EPA regional offices maintain some information on the NSR permits issued by the state and local permitting agencies in their regions, but this information is in different formats and not compiled by EPA into a complete and centralized source of information on NSR permits issued nationwide, as recommended by the National Research Council in 2006. More complete information on NSR permitting would help EPA and external parties gauge the extent to which fossil fuel generating units have obtained NSR permits and help inform enforcement efforts that have already found widespread alleged noncompliance. In cases where unit owners apply for permits before making physical or operational changes that would result in a significant net increase of emissions, EPA plays an important role because it has an opportunity to comment on every draft NSR permit under consideration by state and local permitting agencies and to influence decisions about the appropriate level of pollution control, among others. A key benefit of EPA’s involvement in the permitting process is that the agency can review and comment on permits issued in different geographic areas and assess various aspects of draft permits, including the level of emissions control required. Because emissions controls can cost owners and operators of generating units hundreds of millions of dollars, EPA’s review of the required level of emissions control is critically important. Although EPA and headquarters staff devote resources to commenting on draft permits, EPA does not track whether state and local permitting agencies incorporate the agency’s comments. Without such information, EPA cannot fully assess the extent to which state and local agencies incorporate its comments in NSR permits or the extent to which emissions control requirements imposed by state and local permitting agencies reflect suggestions made by EPA in its comments. Page 22 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review To help improve EPA’s implementation of NSR, we recommend that the Recommendations for EPA Administrator direct the entities responsible for implementing and Executive Action enforcing NSR—specifically, the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, and EPA regions—to take the following two actions: • Working with EPA regions and state and local permitting agencies, consider ways to develop a centralized source of information on NSR permits issued to fossil fuel electricity generating units, and • Using appropriate methods, such as sampling or periodic assessments, develop a process for evaluating the effects of its comments on draft NSR permits. We provided a draft of this report to the Department of Energy, the Agency Comments Department of Justice, and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The and Our Evaluation Department of Energy said they had no comments on the report’s findings and recommendations. The Department of Justice provided technical comments, which we incorporated as appropriate. EPA provided written comments, a copy of which can be found in appendix IV. In its written comments, EPA agreed with the importance of having good systems for tracking and compiling information to efficiently and effectively administer its programs, while enhancing accountability and transparency, but disagreed with the need for the actions called for in our recommendations. Regarding our first recommendation that EPA work with state and local permitting authorities to consider ways to develop a centralized source of information on permits issued to electric generating units, EPA said that it believes it has a number of permit tracking mechanisms in place, and raised four concerns about our recommendation. First, EPA said that it has maintained a centralized permit information database for many years—the RACT/BACT/LAER Clearinghouse, which is capable of capturing and sharing information on NSR permits that have been issued. However, EPA acknowledged that this database is incomplete—including about half of issued NSR permits—primarily because, in some areas, state and local agencies are not required to enter information about the permits they issue. Nonetheless, EPA said it is taking steps to improve participation. We continue to believe that comprehensive permitting data would enable EPA, Congress, and other interested parties to better understand the scope and impact of NSR. Page 23 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review Second, EPA said that its regional offices track NSR permitting by the states in their jurisdiction and that the agency believes it is most appropriate for the regional offices, rather than headquarters, to be responsible for this information. However, our work found that the tracking of NSR permits by EPA’s regional office varied in completeness. For example, of the four regions we included in our sample, one region had a robust system for tracking issued NSR permits, and one had no system at all. EPA also said that its regional offices provide oversight of state and local agencies and that an EPA-wide compilation of permit data would be redundant, add costs, and provide little benefit to its oversight function. We continue to believe that a centralized source of complete information on NSR permits would enhance EPA’s oversight of state and local permitting agencies and help ensure consistency across regions. EPA headquarters could build on the ongoing efforts of some regional offices and develop more complete data using a simple, low-cost system. For example, we found that two regional offices use a spreadsheet to compile and maintain basic data on permits issued by state and local agencies. Additionally, we believe that any costs incurred in developing more comprehensive data should be considered relative to the benefits that could accrue from having better information on the universe of permitted facilities including, as noted by the National Research Council, the ability to assess the impact of policy changes. Third, EPA said that a centralized database of all NSR permits would not help most members of the public because most members of the public are interested in permits issued to specific facilities rather than the entire universe of all permits issued. Our report focused on the importance of more complete data to enhance programwide oversight of NSR permitting and targeting of enforcement efforts. More complete data could potentially assist the public and other interested parties in understanding the extent of NSR permitting for individual facilities, but this was not the basis of our findings and recommendations. We continue to believe that a centralized source of permitting data is important for EPA’s oversight of state and local permitting agencies and to enhance its enforcement efforts. Fourth, EPA questioned the value of more comprehensive information in targeting noncompliance with requirements to obtain permits. Specifically, EPA said that identifying noncompliance involves targeting facilities that should have obtained permits but did not and that information on facilities that have obtained permits would not assist in these efforts. Moreover, EPA said that getting data on noncompliant sources is time- and resource-intensive. We continue to believe that compiling complete information on facilities that have obtained permits could help identify Page 24 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review facilities that have not obtained permits and enhance targeting of these facilities for potential noncompliance. We also believe that understanding which facilities have obtained permits as required could decrease these time and resource demands because the agency would have a better starting point for identifying noncompliance. Regarding our second recommendation that EPA develop a process for evaluating the effect of its comments on issued permits, the agency said that its regional offices already do so and described the interactions between these offices and state and local agencies during the permitting process. EPA also said that its regional offices already conduct oversight of state and local permitting agencies, including whether these agencies adequately address EPA’s comments on draft permits. We acknowledge these efforts in the report and believe that, as part of its overall oversight of nationwide permitting efforts, EPA headquarters could benefit from a broader and more comprehensive assessment of the extent to which its comments on draft permits were adequately considered and incorporated. Because the terms of issued permits can result in the installation of pollution controls that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, it is important to conduct higher level review of issued permits to identify variability in the terms of issued permits across geographic areas. We therefore continue to believe that implementing this recommendation would enhance oversight of NSR permitting nationwide and that EPA has an opportunity to build on the information already collected through the oversight activities of its regional offices. EPA also provided technical comments that we incorporated as appropriate. As agreed with your office, unless you publicly announce the contents of this report earlier, we plan no further distribution until 30 days from the report date. At that time, we will send copies to the appropriate congressional committees, the Administrator of EPA, and other interested parties. In addition, the report will be available at no charge on the GAO website at http://www.gao.gov. Page 25 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review If you or your staff have any questions about this report, please contact David Trimble at (202) 512-3841 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Frank Rusco at (202) 512-3841 or email@example.com. Contact points for our Offices of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may be found on the last page of this report. GAO staff who made key contributors to this report are listed in appendix V. Sincerely yours, David C. Trimble Director, Natural Resources and Environment Frank Rusco Director, Natural Resources and Environment Page 26 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review Appendix I: Scope and Methodology Appendix I: Scope and Methodology To assess what information the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains on New Source Review (NSR) permits issued for fossil fuel electricity generating units, we gathered information from EPA and selected states on the status of their NSR permitting programs and efforts to collect and maintain permitting data. We selected a nonprobability sample of nine states on the basis of (1) the number of older electricity generating units in the state; (2) the quantity of electricity generated by such units in those states; (3) the volume of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide emitted by units in those states; and (4) the region in which the generating unit was located. 1 We obtained these data from the Ventyx Velocity Suite EV Market-Ops database, a proprietary database containing consolidated energy and emissions data from EPA, the Energy Information Administration (EIA), and other sources. To assess the reliability of the Ventyx data, we reviewed documentation provided by Ventyx and tested key variables to verify their accuracy and determined the Ventyx data to be sufficiently reliable for our purposes. The nine states we selected were Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. To assess how permitting information is collected and used, we reviewed relevant documentation from these nine states and from EPA. We also interviewed permitting officials from these nine states, the four EPA regional offices that oversee these states, EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, its Office of Inspector General, and its Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. In three of the states, some localities are responsible for NSR permitting; we also spoke with officials at two of those localities, which we selected on the basis of the number of older units in their jurisdictions. To examine what challenges, if any, EPA, state, and local agencies face in ensuring compliance by electricity generating units with requirements to obtain NSR permits, we reviewed relevant provisions of the Clean Air Act and NSR regulations; guidance and other information on implementing NSR maintained by EPA; and literature on NSR from government agencies, academic and research institutions, environmental organizations, and industry groups. We also interviewed knowledgeable officials and stakeholders from these agencies and institutions, as well as officials from the selected states and localities. 1 Because we used a nonprobability sample, the results we obtained from electricity generating units in these states are not generalizeable to such units in all states; nonetheless, these results did help us understand how NSR is implemented and enforced in different states. Page 27 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review Appendix I: Scope and Methodology To review what available data show about compliance with requirements to obtain NSR permits, we reviewed information published by EPA on the estimated rate of noncompliance by industrial sectors. We also reviewed information on EPA’s enforcement activities maintained by enforcement officials in EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, including (1) data on notices of violation sent to owners of generating units alleging noncompliance with NSR; (2) lawsuits filed in court for alleged NSR violations; and (3) information on the settlements concluded by EPA and the Department of Justice with owners of generating units, which ended or prevented lawsuits alleging noncompliance. To assess the reliability of the EPA-provided data, we interviewed knowledgeable agency officials and tested key variables to verify their accuracy. We determined these data to be sufficiently reliable for the purposes of our analysis. We also interviewed knowledgeable enforcement and compliance officials from EPA’s headquarters Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance and four regional offices. We conducted this performance audit from April 2011 to June 2012, in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. Page 28 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review Appendix II: Comparison of Available Appendix II: Comparison of Available Databases of NSR Permits for Electricity Generating Units Databases of NSR Permits for Electricity Generating Units Table 1: Comparison of Available NSR Permit Databases Database Main purpose Limitations EPA control technology clearinghouse To enable state permitting agencies, EPA By EPA’s estimates, captures about regional offices, and regulated sources to 50 percent of permits assess EPA’s determinations on past NSR applications with respect to required emissions control technologies State databases or permit records To assist states in keeping records of their Do not consolidate permits for regionwide own permitting activity or nationwide assessment; state systems to track permits vary widely Regional databases To inform regulated sources and the public on Data limited to regional jurisdiction; the status of permitting activity completeness of data varies by region Office of Air Quality Planning and To assist EPA’s headquarters permitting Tracks permits issued since 2011, after Standards greenhouse gas permitting division in tracking NSR permits related to greenhouse gas rule took effect; may database greenhouse gases following 2010 exclude NSR permits for some activities, greenhouse gas rule such as coal handling, that affect particulate matter but not greenhouse gases Office of Air Quality Planning and To help EPA ensure consistency in its Does not track whether draft permits are Standards comment letter database comments on draft permits and to meet finalized, or their terms comment deadlines Region 7 coal-fired utility database To track permits issued to coal-fired Database only covers newly constructed generating units from 2000 to 2010 coal-fired units for a limited time period Region 4 combustion turbine database To track permits issued to combustion turbine Database only covers combustion turbine units from the early 1990s onward units, most commonly natural-gas-fired units, and is no longer being updated Source: GAO analysis. Page 29 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review Appendix III: Concluded NSR Settlements Appendix III: Concluded NSR Settlements Table 2: Concluded NSR Settlements Involving Electricity Generating Units Dollar in millions Emissions reductions (tons per year) Date Number Environmentally settlement of units Civil Estimated beneficial Sulfur Nitrogen Company lodged involved penalties control costs projects dioxide oxides a Tampa Electric Company 2/19/2000 10 $3.5 $1,000 $10.5 70,000 53,000 Public Service Enterprise Group 1/24/2002 4 7.4 337 9.25 36,194 18,807 and 11/30/2006 Alcoa, Inc. 3/27/2003 3 1.5 330 2.5 52,900 15,480 Virginia Electric and Power 4/17/2003 20 5.3 1,200 13.9 176,500 60,400 Company b Wisconsin Electric Power 4/29/2003 23 3.2 600 22.5 72,300 32,600 Company Southern Indiana Gas and 6/6/2003 3 0.6 30 2.5 6,400 4,200 Electric Company South Carolina Public Service 3/16/2004 12 2 400 4.5 37,500 29,500 Authority c d Illinois Power Company and 3/7/2005 10 9 500 15 39,500 14,800 Dynegy Midwest Generation Ohio Edison 3/18/2005 29 8.5 1,100 25 171,500 31,050 and 8/11/2009 Alabama Power 4/25/2006 2 0.1 200 4.9 22,790 4,940 Minnkota Power Cooperative 4/26/2006 3 0.85 100 5 23,561 9,458 Nevada Power 6/13/2007 4 0.3 60 0.4 N/A 2,300 Eastern Kentucky Power 7/2/2007 6 0.75 600 47 54,000 8,000 Cooperative American Electric Power 10/9/2007 46 15 4,600 60 654,000 159,000 Salt River Project 8/12/2008 2 0.95 400 4 14,303 6,789 Kentucky Utilities 2/3/2009 1 1.4 135 3 28,500 3,000 Duke Energy 12/22/2009 4 1.75 85 6.25 35,000 N/A Westar Energy 1/25/2010 3 3 500 6 60,000 18,600 American Municipal Power 5/18/2010 4 0.85 0 15 30,600 3,160 e Hoosier Energy 7/23/2010 4 0.95 275 5 19,827 1,845 Northern Indiana Public Service 1/13/2011 11 3.5 600 9.5 46,000 18,000 Company f Tennessee Valley Authority 4/14/2011 59 10 4,000 350 225,757 115,977 Total 263 $80 $12,777 $589 1,837,632 596,106 Source: GAO analysis of EPA data. Page 30 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review Appendix III: Concluded NSR Settlements a EPA estimated the costs of environmentally beneficial projects at $10 to $11 million. b EPA estimated the costs of environmentally beneficial projects at $20 to $25 million. c EPA estimated reductions in sulfur dioxide emissions of 39,500 tons per year compared with 2003 emissions and 283,000 tons per year compared with 1999 emissions. d EPA estimated reductions in nitrogen oxides emissions of 14,800 tons per year compared with 2003 emissions and 58,200 tons per year compared with 1999 emissions. e EPA estimated control costs at $250 to $300 million. f EPA estimated control costs at $3 to $5 billion. Page 31 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review Appendix IV: Comments from the Appendix IV: Comments from the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency Page 32 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review Appendix IV: Comments from the Environmental Protection Agency Page 33 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review Appendix IV: Comments from the Environmental Protection Agency Page 34 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review Appendix IV: Comments from the Environmental Protection Agency Page 35 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review Appendix IV: Comments from the Environmental Protection Agency Page 36 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review Appendix IV: Comments from the Environmental Protection Agency Page 37 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review Appendix IV: Comments from the Environmental Protection Agency Page 38 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review Appendix V: GAO Contacts and Staff Appendix V: GAO Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments Acknowledgments David C. Trimble, (202) 512-3841 or firstname.lastname@example.org GAO Contacts Frank Rusco, (202) 512-3841 or email@example.com In addition to the individuals named above, Michael Hix (Assistant Staff Director), Ellen W. Chu, Philip Farah, Cindy Gilbert, Jessica Lemke, Jon Acknowledgments Ludwigson, Nancy Meyer, Mick Ray, and Jeanette Soares made key contributions to this report. (361278) Page 39 GAO-12-590 EPA's Implementation of New Source Review GAO’s Mission The Government Accountability Office, the audit, evaluation, and investigative arm of Congress, exists to support Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities and to help improve the performance and accountability of the federal government for the American people. GAO examines the use of public funds; evaluates federal programs and policies; and provides analyses, recommendations, and other assistance to help Congress make informed oversight, policy, and funding decisions. 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Air Pollution: EPA Needs Better Information on New Source Review Permits
Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2012-06-22.
Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)